RUSTENBURG, South Africa — Grim-faced American players filed by one at a time on their way out of Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Their World Cup was over.
They'll have four years to dwell on what might have been, how the most-talented team in U.S. soccer history was knocked out in a game the Americans were convinced they should have won.
No comeback this time. The United States relied on late rallies once too often.
Life on the World Cup edge came to an exhausting and crushing end against a familiar foe Saturday, when Ghana — led by Asamoah Gyan's goal three minutes into extra time — posted a 2-1 victory that ended a thrilling yet futile tournament for the United States in the second round just when it seemed the Americans had a relatively easy path to the semifinals.
"We felt like we had a great opportunity," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We just gave ourselves too much of a mountain to climb. We just couldn't come back."
Kevin-Prince Boateng put Ghana ahead when he stripped the ball from Ricardo Clark in the fifth minute and beat Howard from 16 yards. It was the third time in four games the United States fell behind early, and once again the Americans rallied.
Landon Donovan tied the score with a penalty kick in the 62nd minute, his record fifth goal for the United States in World Cup play. Jonathan Mensah had been called for a penalty for pulling down Clint Dempsey in the box.
"The finality of it all was brutal," Donovan said. "The reality that it's over after you put so much into it, not just these four years, but your whole life, and realizing you may never get this chance again. It's very disappointing."
There was no offense left, no spark, no fire — unlike the first-round come-from-behind draws against England and Slovenia, and Donovan's injury-time goal against Algeria that lifted the United States into the knockout phase.
And the United States, 14th in the world, had no answer for the No. 32 team.
"We tried to push and push," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "I don't know if we just didn't have anything left because we had been pushing so much the entire tournament."
Ghana, the only African team to advance past the first round of Africa's first World Cup, eliminated the Americans for the second straight World Cup after a 2-1 win that knocked out the United States in the group phase in 2006. The Black Stars joined Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) as the only African teams to reach the quarterfinals. Ghana faces Uruguay for a berth in the semifinals, a round the United States has not reached since the first World Cup in 1930.
"A stinging, tough defeat," said Bob Bradley, who faces an uncertain future as U.S. coach.
With former President Bill Clinton watching and Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger sitting next to him, the United States was done in by a porous defense and forwards who failed to score.
"When you give up this many goals, you're not going to go very far," Bocanegra said.
All five U.S. goals in the tournament came from the team's midfield backbone: three by Donovan, one by Dempsey and one by Michael Bradley, the coach's son.
In the first extra time World Cup game for the United States, Gyan got the winning goal when he took a long ball from Andre Ayew and beat Bocanegra, his teammate on the French club Rennes. Gyan let the ball bounce, took a touch with his chest, and with Jay DeMerit trying to catch up, scored over Howard with a left-footed shot from 16 yards.
"I had my angles. … There's no question about it," Howard said. "He absolutely crushed it."
The goal set off horn-honking celebrations in Ghana, a West African country nearly 3,000 miles away.
There was nothing to equal Donovan's injury-time goal that provided a 1-0 victory over Algeria and moved the Americans into the second round. The closest the United States came to tying it was in the 98th minute, when Maurice Edu's header off Donovan's corner kick went wide.
"If we're a little less naive (Saturday), we would have advanced," said Donovan, at 28 in his prime and the best American ever. "I said all along this was a young team and a relatively inexperienced team at this level."